by Ferida Wolff
When I was a little girl, I loved to look through my mother’s jewelry box. Whenever my parents went out for the night. There were glittering treasures hidden inside, like the gems in a pirate’s chest.
I would try on each piece of Mom’s jewelry and create a story to go with it. A rhinestone-studded pin in the shape of a crown seemed to give me a queen’s permission to indulge my imagination. Slithery golden chains wrapped themselves like snakes around my arms so I could pretend to be Cleopatra.
Mom had more rings than I had fingers and I wore each one in turn, assigning them individual magical powers that I could activate with the a mere touch. There were earrings galore; some dangled halfway down my neck and swayed as I became an Egyptian dancer while those with tiny pearls rested delicately on my earlobes and I became royalty for the evening.
What I loved best of all, though, was a bracelet with milky stones that my mother called moonstones. If I was lucky and my mother wore something else that night, I could have the bracelet for myself until I went to bed. I would pretend that I reached into the sky and captured the moon’s light, which I tucked carefully into each stone. Then I would hold the bracelet up to the window to compare it to the moon. The moon was always bigger but the stones were brighter. They seemed to glow more brilliant as the moon got larger until, at full moon, they were so beautiful, I had to hold my breath in wonder. One day, when I was grown up, I decided, I would wear the moon on my wrist, whenever I wanted, even during the day. And I would be an elegant lady. At that time, the most elegant lady I could think of was my mother.
I had a grown family of my own when my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. By that time, her jewelry box was forgotten and my fantasies were long transformed into more realistic possibilities. My mother, too, had been transformed. There was no elegance in the slow passage into dementia or in the anger of her despair. There was nothing elegant about having my mother, the woman who had so carefully tended to her hair and her nails, looking dirty and unkempt. I saw no beauty in the wildness of her eyes.
When Mom died, the moonstone bracelet became mine. I sent it to a jeweler’s to be polished and thought that it would be one of my treasured possessions, a part of my mother that would shimmer with my childhood memories. It came back with the same lustrous glow I remembered. I looked at each perfect stone linked in its place along the old-fashioned silver setting. All these years later and it was still beautiful.
But I couldn’t wear it. It was tied up with now not with my mother’s elegance but with her disappearance. Her physical body survived into her seventies but Alzheimer’s claimed her personality and spirit. I could not separate the two images. The little girl was too devastated and the adult too traumatized to be comforted by the moon.
I put the bracelet into a plastic bag with some of my mother’s other jewelry, none of which I would wear, and stashed it in my closet. It was there where my daughter found it one day when she was visiting.
“Ooh,” she said. “When did you get this?”
“It was Grandma’s,” I said, surprised by the catch in my throat.
She held up the bracelet and let the light shine through the translucent stones the way I had all those years before. As I watched her, I saw the bracelet again through my child’s eyes. I remembered my mother in her glamorous days with her exotic wide smile, rolling her dark hair up and back into what she called a chignon as she was getting dressed for an evening out. I could almost see her turn toward me again as she once had, hold out her arm, and ask me to help her put on her jewelry. I would reach out to lock the clasp on the moonstone bracelet around her wrist and be rewarded with a hug when it clicked into place.
I snapped back to the present when my daughter asked, “Can you help me, Mom?” Her arm was outstretched in the same way my mother’s had been. I fastened the bracelet around her delicate wrist. It looked perfect on her, elegant the way it was supposed to. My daughter and I found the earrings that matched and scavenged through the other pieces of my mother’s jewelry, taking out whatever attracted her. We cleaned them and packed them for her to take home. Now and then I will see her wearing something from Mom’s jewelry box and I am glad.
Maybe one day I’ll be able to wear my mother’s jewelry again though my Cleopatra days are gone. But I won’t be looking to revive my memories as much as I will look for my own elegance as a woman grown and tested, as a mother passing on life skills to her children and grandchildren, as a person discovering her value as the decades unfold. I will try to remember not my mother’s craziness but how she tried so hard not to be crazy. And when I turn toward the moon, I will know that no matter how beautifully a jewel glows, it is the human spirit that truly shines.